The rain had fallen in sheets, destroying visibility and making it impossible to work on deck. The boat had turned broadside to the waves, and the horrible tearing sound of the vessel ripping apart, punctuated with cries of alarm from his crewmates, had all been swallowed by the fury of the raging wind and rain. Since the storm cleared, not a single drop had fallen. For almost two days.
Jordan was afloat, although he was beginning to believe everyone else had met a more merciful end. He dipped his head to splash some water on his cracked lips, wincing as the salt stung them. It didn’t help. Nothing helped. His self-inflating vest had saved his life, but if he was smart, he’d take it off and end the burning thirst. He’d never been smart.
He’d tried looking for fish—hell, he was hungry enough to eat a raw seagull—but nothing came within reach. The bright sun reflected back at him from the lapping waves, making his eyes throb in sympathy with his lips.
Still, if he quit looking for food, he might as well lose the vest. He scanned the endless expanse of surrounding ocean, wincing at the reflected light.
It was particularly bright to the left.
He closed his eyes, but the thought hammered at him. It was brighter. Something was different there.
Anything different might help.
He dug into the water, desperation lending him the strength for a few sure strokes. His hand closed around something round and hard.
He brought it up to his face and shook his head. A fishing float—a glass one. They were a rarity now that everyone had switched over to plastic. On any other day, he’d be excited. Today it was another failed hope.
“Give that back!”
His head snapped up, and he blinked several times. Now he was hallucinating. Right in front of him were two sea-green eyes in a face framed with hair the color of kelp. But he bit his lip, and the salty blood lent him the moisture to croak, “No.”
“It’s mine! You can’t have it.”
She sounded like a child for all that she had a woman’s breasts. Usually that would command his complete attention, but right now he’d gladly trade the sight for a glass of water.
Jordan forced his voice to work. “What’s it worth to you? Can you take me back to land?” She must have a boat out here somewhere, although it couldn’t be bigger than a kayak. He didn’t care if it was an inner tube, as long as she had something to drink.
“Land is a long way away,” she said doubtfully. “It’s just a ball.”
“Take me back to your boat, then, for God’s sake. I’ll trade you for a bottle of water.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have a boat, and there’s water all around you. Now give me back my ball!”
Why was she playing games? Couldn’t she see he was dying? “Get me to land, or find another toy.”
“Fine,” she snapped. I will!” She dove and a silvery tail splashed.
Jordan squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them. Now he was seeing mermaids. He was hallucinating. But he hung onto the float anyway. The Coast Guard might still come, with their big, beautiful boats equipped with many bottles of water. Then he could show everyone the float when he told them the tale. It would make a great fishing story, even though their catch was feeding crabs at the bottom of the sea by now.
He sighed–the captain was there, too. And Jim and Steve. And if he didn’t get some water soon, he’d be joining them. He drifted, unable to fight it any longer. But he didn’t unfasten the vest, and he didn’t let go of the float.
A head popped up out of the waves. “I’ll take you partway, but you have to give me my ball first.”
That was enough to raise the ghost of a smile. “I don’t think so. Take me to where I can at least see land.” As long as it was his hallucination, he wasn’t going to be a fool. Crazy was bad enough.
She swam off again and Jordan’s head dropped. She was annoying, but at least she was something to think about besides his dry mouth and burning lips.
His head was shoved over, and Jordan looked up, sputtering. Right at a smiling dolphin.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Grab his dorsal fin.” The girl gestured from the other side of the dolphin.
Jordan tucked the float into his vest and tentatively reached for the dolphin. It didn’t back away, but instead it tolerated his touch. It even allowed him to clamber up clumsily to lay across its back.
Jordan held on with everything he had left. It was a glorious experience, even in his present condition. He was riding a dolphin. It was almost as hard to believe as a mermaid. But the feel of the dolphin surging beneath him was real. The wake of their passage was real. This was happening.
And then he lost his grip and slid off.
The dolphin returned and it sounded like it was scolding him. “I’m sorry,” Jordan said. “I’ll try harder.”
But the days afloat had taken their toll. He slid off three more times, and the girl said, “What’s wrong with you? I thought you wanted to reach land.”
“I do,” Jordan said. “It’s just…I’m weak. I’ll keep trying.” He reached toward the circling fin and the girl gasped.
And then the dolphin leaped up in front of him. Other dolphins were leaping, ramming into what he now saw was a mako shark. Jordan searched his pockets, but his knife hadn’t made it.
The shark surfaced and made a beeline for them. Adrenaline gave Jordan the energy to shove the girl behind him. He smashed the float on the shark’s nose.
It recoiled back, and that was enough room for a dolphin to crash into it, pushing it further away. Three others joined in and Jordan waited, panting, to see if it would be enough.
“You broke my ball.”
Jordan groaned. “I’m sorry. I’ll tell you what. If you help me get home,” and he quickly did the mental math, “I’ll get you five more. I know a glassblower in Newport who makes them. I can probably even get them in different colors.”
“Ten balls.” Her tail made a little splash.
Jordan shook his head. “Lady, I just lost my job. My boat, my captain, the guys I worked with—they’re all gone. I’ve got a hundred bucks in a sock at home, and that’s it. Five is all I can get you.”
Her eyes searched his. “Really different colors?”
Jordan nodded. “Sure. They can make glass just about any color you like.”
She swam off, and Jordan really hoped it was to bring the dolphins back. He drifted in and out of consciousness but finally woke with a start to see two smiling dolphin faces in front of him.
“They drove the shark away, and they’re ready to try again if you are.” The girl swam into view, and this time she stayed by his side. She helped him on and when Jordan felt his grip slipping again, she leaped up and held her hands over his. “Hold on,” she said. “You’re almost there.”
They swam to a cove with a stream emptying into it on the right, framed by evergreens. Jordan splashed and staggered his way in. His arms and legs felt like lead weights, far too heavy to move. He finished coming ashore at a crawl and sat in the middle of the stream, gulping water with reckless abandon.
The girl perched on a rock nearby and splashed him with her tail. “There—since you seem to like it so much.”
Jordan looked up and grinned. “I’m alive. Thank you.” He drank again before asking, “What’s your name?”
“Just that someday I’m going to have kids, and I’ll tell them how you saved my life. Figured I should get your name right.”
“Make sure you put in the part where you wrecked my ball.”
Jordan smiled. “Be here at sunset in two day’s time. I’ll bring you a present.”
The first thing Jordan did after he finished with the Coast Guard was to hitch a ride to Newport. There he bought five glass floats—yellow, orange, red, green, and blue. He took them back to the beach and waited all night, but Anenome never showed. He buried them by the stone where she’d sat. When he checked again a month later, they were gone.
He never saw her again.